Callous-Unemotional Behaviors and Harsh Parenting: Reciprocal Associations across Early Childhood and Moderation by Inherited Risk

J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2019 May;47(5):811-823. doi: 10.1007/s10802-018-0482-y.


Callous-unemotional (CU) behaviors increase children's risk for subsequent antisocial behavior. This risk process may begin in early childhood with reciprocal pathways between CU behaviors and harsh parenting. In a sample of 561 linked triads of biological mothers, adoptive parents, and adopted children, the present study examined bidirectional links between CU behaviors and harsh parenting across three time points from 18 to 54 months and investigated moderation by inherited risk for psychopathic traits. Child CU behaviors and harsh parenting were measured using adoptive mother and adoptive father reports, and biological mothers provided reports of their personality characteristics. Findings supported reciprocal associations between harsh parenting and CU behaviors during early childhood, especially during the transition from toddlerhood (27 months) to the preschool period (54 months). Moreover, multiple-group analyses showed that level of inherited risk moderated associations between CU behaviors and harsh parenting. Specifically, there were statistically reliable associations between CU behaviors at 27 months and adoptive mothers' harsh parenting at 54 months, and between adoptive fathers' harsh parenting at 27 months and CU behaviors at 54 months among children at higher inherited risk, but not among those at lower inherited risk. The findings illustrate the dynamic interplay between parenting, CU behaviors, and heritable risk.

Keywords: Callous-unemotional behaviors; Early childhood; Genetic risk; Parenting.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affective Symptoms / etiology*
  • Affective Symptoms / genetics
  • Child Behavior*
  • Child, Adopted*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Conduct Disorder / etiology*
  • Conduct Disorder / genetics
  • Empathy*
  • Fathers*
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / etiology*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / genetics
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mothers*
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Parenting*
  • Risk